Friends picked me up from Philadelphia International Airport and as we were leaving the parking garage I twisted around in my seat to get a view of the structure behind me. Up close and from below, there are indecipherable swirls of color on black canvas, horizontally interrupted by the dark voids of open parking garage levels. Though hard to read, it’s clear something is happening on the side of the massive concrete edifice. As one moves away from the clusters of airport buildings, onto I-95, heading into Philadelphia or Southbound toward Maryland, these panels of color come into focus as vibrant figures, twenty-six in total, dancing their way across the fractured façade of the airport’s parking garages.
The mural is called How Philly Moves, and at nearly 85,000 square feet it is one of the largest in the world. Jacques-Jean Tiziou, the local photographer whose images of dancers make up the sprawling composition, claims there is no one optimal point of view from which to take it in. The greatest amount of visual clarity and a real sense of its tremendous scope are perhaps best gotten as one moves along the adjacent highway. These dancing Philadelphians are on the move, and in our cars so are we, travelers both visiting and local alike. The airport, and now by extension the mural, is a “gateway” to and from the region, and I assure you the dancing figures on its parking structures are rather more inviting than the immigration officers within.
A Performing Arts City
Perhaps this will come as a surprise to some, but Philadelphia is a thriving performing arts city. I’ve seen dances in public parks and fountains, abandoned lots, churches, old schools, not to mention in more expected clubs and theatres. Furthermore, people are friendly, creative. On my recent visit a trolley driver got on the intercom to rave about my friend’s hairdo and a bank teller gave me an unsolicited recipe for mac ‘n’ cheese. This unabashed openness and generosity comes as no surprise to Tiziou – hereby JJ (note: as I’ve known the artist over a decade, I find it impossible to call him anything besides his abbreviated nickname) – whose photography has for years been capturing the joy and passion of the city’s residents in all their idiosyncratic ways. JJ’s own unique passion is shooting dance and movement, and the twenty-six dancers on the mural represent but a fraction of those who participated in the project. Subjects ranged from seasoned professionals of countless dance styles to amateur aficionados to, well, anyone who felt like getting down in front of the camera. The thing that united them all is a love of dance and an unhampered willingness to share that enthusiasm.
Mural panorama; © 2010 Jacques-Jean Tiziou, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the Mural Arts Advocates
But How Philly Moves did not begin or end with the high-profile mural, which was installed by a skilled team from Philadelphia’s famous Mural Arts Program and which was inaugurated with a rooftop dance party at the airport this October. It’s had many manifestations. Beginning as a finalist proposal for a subway station commission, it moved on to multiple print exhibitions and slide projections, including a frenetic and impressionistic slide projection on the side of Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. There’s also a new permanent exhibition of 162 photographs plus a video documentary in the airport’s Terminal B-C baggage claim. Three hundred ten dancers have currently participated over four sets of photo shoots since Spring 2008. In that time JJ has generated approximately 32,000 photographs. The evolving project is far from over.
Back when I was a college student, spending unhealthy amounts of time in the dark room, JJ was the first person I knew who really embraced digital photography. Even before going digital, JJ shot liberally, rapid fire. He got into people’s faces, unafraid to make mistakes. While I was carefully composing and calculating exposures on large-format field cameras, JJ was following the light, shooting everyone and everything. He took an insane number of photographs in those years learning that the added ease with which an exposure could now be made belied the work embodied in processing, caring for, and storing that image.
Indeed, the digital revolution in photography has in theory made it easier to make and disseminate work, but more confusing to assess its monetary worth. The value of an image is a nebulous thing indeed. Yes, material costs are (debatably) down, but there is also always someone willing to work for free. Plus there are embodied production and storage costs and rights and reproductions to consider.
When one takes a digital photograph, it might seem easy to give it away, but for someone like JJ who has taken over a million photographs in his lifetime, this simple interaction becomes more complicated. With an archive so large and data backed up offsite on countless hard drives, the chances are greater that in ten years time someone could request an obscure image. I know I’m not alone in asking, “Hey, JJ, remember that time you took a picture of me at that one place with so-and-so? Can you send me a copy of that?” This takes time and effort, and maintaining storage devices all those years wasn’t free. Something that seems so intangible, easy, and costless is decidedly not.
Mural Photography © 2011 Joel Avery, CREATiVENESS
This brings us back to How Philly Moves, not the mural, but the project. In recent years JJ has been meditating on ideas of how to create sustainable models for photographers in his position, those who want to do less economically valued community-based work. In JJ’s case, weddings and corporate assignments had been subsidizing his occasionally pro bono art, social-justice, and community-focused projects. JJ’s “dream” is for his photography to be community supported and for years he’s had a link on his website for donors who find value in what he’s doing to make repeated or one-time contributions to help underwrite his diverse practice. This practice includes photographing artists and activists participating in local, national, and international social justice projects.
But what a community values is just not as economically viable as what a corporation or individual might value. Yet just as digital technology changed the way that people take and share pictures, so too is the internet changing the ways in which projects' financial goals can be realized. There is no one model and existing ones are far from perfect, but it’s nevertheless clear that there is an ever-evolving relationship between artists and their audiences, one centering on the choice of the individual viewer as the arbiter what matters.
So many Philadelphians wanted to dance for How Philly Moves that JJ had to schedule additional photo shoots at his own expense. For the latest shoot, which took place this Fall, JJ turned to the popular crowdfunding website Kickstarter, where he ran a successful month-long campaign to raise $25,000 to move forward with How Philly Moves photo shoots. (He raised $26,270). The community-funded model used on the site is an incarnation of JJ’s “dream” with greater public visibility. Six hundred seventeen individuals backed the campaign at various levels of support, but JJ would have been equally (if not more) thrilled if 2,500 people gave $10 a piece, or 25,000 people gave $1 each.
When I spoke to JJ recently, it was obvious that he’s been thinking a lot about this sort of thing. People often ask him about how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign and he is very clear that it's not just “free money.” Such success requires an active social network and a lot of community mobilization. In a way, this was an ideal project simply because so many community members were involved (as dancers and volunteers) that many people already felt like stakeholders. Developing sustainable models of community-based artwork requires a lot of business savvy and marketing strategy. Though JJ’s career is clearly doing well, he wants to go back to school at some point. He’s unsure, however, whether it would be better to go for an MBA rather than the more expected MFA.
And JJ’s not alone. He constantly meets young and experienced photographers in a place where he was not long ago. One of his (many) dream projects is to run a symposium or host brainstorming sessions where artists could teach, share, develop and further consider the possibilities of working sustainably in community supported models.
Jacques-Jean Tiziou, How Philly Moves; Courtesy of the artist
Everyone is photogenic
All that said, these models allow JJ to pursue what could be considered his mantra or manifesto: Everyone is photogenic. It might sound cloyingly heartwarming, and it is. JJ has literally photographed me in my pajamas waking up on New Year’s Day on a mattress in someone’s flat in London. I was grumpy, confused, sleepy (note: this event was not remotely as scandalous as it reads!). In that sort of scenario, before teeth have been brushed or hairs pulled out of face, you’d be more inclined to punch the photographer in his lens than to listen to him explain why you might at that moment be photogenic. But JJ is annoyingly persistent and ultimately convincing. He really wants us to be active members of our communities, to share in or find whatever joy is around us, and to realize that we are all beautiful and photogenic.
In a society so driven by celebrity and competition, perhaps what we should really be focusing on is collaboration and community. The Kickstarter campaign in which so many people came forward to declare, “I find this important and valuable,” is one sign of his success, an affirmation of this goal. So is the giant mural, which welcomes us to Philadelphia and offers us a friendly goodbye when we leave. Whether we’re cruising past the mural in our cars or vying for elbow room on a crowded plane, JJ doesn’t want us to see those around us as obstacles, or competition for space, but instead as our next “dance partners in this larger dance of life.”
All images courtesy of Jacques-Jean Tiziou.